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The Power of Collaboration: A Collective-Impact Approach to Reach Disconnected Youth

Posted on 01.23.2018

Adult working with Youth


  • An initiative in Nebraska aims to reach rural communities’ most disconnected older youth to help them build a positive future.
  • The Connected Youth Initiative (CYI) and an evaluation team are generating early lessons about the effort’s challenges and opportunities.
  • CYI’s collective-impact framework brings together multiple partners with a shared agenda to improve outcomes for youth and communities.

At 18, Jesse was one of countless “unconnected” older youth. He had moved out of foster care with no plans for the future — and a deep distrust of authority. “The way I grew up,” he says, “I had nothing. I had nobody I could depend on.” That changed when Jesse’s foster care caseworker introduced him to Nebraska’s Connected Youth Initiative, where he met coaches from multiple local agencies to help him learn life skills.

Early 2018 is too soon to know whether the Connected Youth Initiative (CYI) is as successful throughout the state as Jesse says it has been for him. But CYI’s leaders and a WestEd-led evaluation team are generating early lessons about the challenges and opportunities of helping youth like Jesse — those ages 14 through 24, coming from foster care, juvenile detention, or homelessness, without family or other local ties — specifically in rural, low-income settings.

The evaluation is gathering extensive data to assess the impact of CYI on young people and the success of its collective-impact framework, a model that brings together multiple partners with a shared agenda focused on improving support systems for rural communities’ most difficult-to-reach populations.

What is the Connected Youth Initiative?

Created by the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation (known as Nebraska Children), CYI is a statewide project to help ensure a productive adult life for youth whose challenging circumstances have brought them to the attention of public support systems. Nebraska Children had been operating a similar youth-support program in some of the state’s urban areas when, in 2015, it received a federal Social Innovation Fund grant to build on the successes of the urban work and to test its collective-impact model in rural counties.

Serving as an intermediary for the federal grant, Nebraska Children passes along subgrants to six community collaboratives across the state and provides training and technical assistance to the collaboratives, as well as financial oversight to ensure compliance with federal requirements.1 Nebraska Children and each of the collaboratives are required to match the federal funds dollar-for-dollar, in part to ensure that sustainability planning is integral to implementation from the onset.

To improve outcomes for older youth in participating communities, each CYI-funded collaborative brings together multiple local agencies that provide a variety of support services. “All types of service providers and state agencies are coming together to address older-youth needs in each community,” says Sara Riffel, Associate Vice President of CYI. “In one of our collaboratives, people around the table might include providers from Health and Human Services, juvenile probation, community-based organizations, the local health center, faith-based organizations, and mental health providers,” she says, adding that “packaging these providers into one coordinated system is unique; we have to build the plane as we fly it.”

Each collaborative determines what array of services to provide. That determination is made with assistance from a locally based coordinator who helps recruit partners in the community and from Nebraska Children’s state-level CYI staff who ensure that services are aligned with measures that the project’s evaluators are tracking.

WestEd’s Justice and Prevention Research Center has partnered with the Nebraska Center for Justice Research at the University of Nebraska–Omaha to evaluate CYI, gathering and analyzing data on the initiative’s impact on youth and on local support systems. The evaluators also work closely with Nebraska Children to provide formative feedback to help guide CYI leaders in implementing the initiative effectively.

The collective-impact framework

To be eligible for CYI funding, collaboratives agree to adhere to a research-based conceptual framework with multiple components, to maximize the positive impact on their target population.

“The collective-impact framework creates a structure for how multiple entities collaborate with each other around a complex issue,” says Senior Research Associate Trevor Fronius, who is leading WestEd’s evaluation. The framework has five components:

  • a common agenda, or goals, shared among collaborators;
  • shared measurement systems;
  • coordination of activities;
  • continuous communication among collaborating organizations; and
  • “backbone support,” which Fronius says includes administrative support and overseeing cross-organization coordination.

To implement this framework, each community collaborative puts in place services and programs targeted to their youth’s specific needs and implements several core activities, such as building youth leadership and teaching financial literacy. Each also designates a “central navigator,” a person (or people) from one of the service provider organizations, to be responsible for connecting each youth with a tailored range of services from all different providers. Riffel says having this navigator is part of how the “collective-impact approach allows young people to build more of a long-term connection to the community, instead of connecting to one provider and then, when that service ends, no longer being connected.”

“[The] collective-impact approach allows young people to build more of a long-term connection to the community.”

The central navigator also helps the collaborative gather local youth data and report that information to the evaluators monthly so that consistent data are gathered across different sites. As statewide CYI staff and evaluators identify best practices, professional learning opportunities, and other supports, the navigator also disseminates that information to local partners.

“Through CYI, we’ve put into action a collective-impact model that has common elements but also is place-based, meaning it’s locally informed and can look different from community to community. Each collaborative has different partners at the table, different strengths and challenges, even different interventions. CYI really is about doing what’s best for each unique community, but within our greater model,” notes Riffel.

Evaluating CYI’s impact on youth

The Initiative’s impact on youth is being measured in eight domains of well-being:

  • education,
  • employment,
  • financial well-being,
  • housing,
  • permanence in the community,
  • physical and mental health,
  • self-perceptions of hope and executive functioning, and
  • transportation.

Participating youth complete surveys that gather data on objective measures, such as whether they have a job or a place to live, and on subjective measures, such as rating how “successful” they consider themselves to be. Youth complete an initial survey to assess how they’re faring in each domain of well-being, and then complete follow-up surveys twice each year. The evaluation team analyzes the survey data, comparing two groups: (1) youth who take the initial self-assessment and participate in services; and (2) youth who complete the initial self-assessment but ultimately do not take up services.

Given both the rural context and the mobility of this youth population, recruitment, retention, and data collection have been challenging, notes Riffel. To meet their goal of reaching a total of 1,200 youth across the collaboratives, local partners are focusing on understanding what motivates unconnected young people to accept help — such as a financial asset-building program that provides a two-to-one match for the amount of money that youth are able to save. “We found that when you start helping young people buy cars, other young people come out of the woodwork,” Riffel says. “So we knew if we got that one program up and running, it would naturally help with recruitment, and it did.”

WestEd is also developing a new “youth well-being index,” a composite scoring system that has the potential to be used in other places serving similar young people. “The WestEd/University of Nebraska–Omaha evaluation aims to add to national research on older youth, research that historically hasn’t focused on this kind of complex collaboration among multiple local agencies working together on issues following probation, foster care, and homelessness,” says Fronius.

Evaluating CYI’s collective-impact framework

The WestEd/University of Nebraska–Omaha team is also evaluating the collaboratives’ adherence to the collective-impact framework. “This is one of the first third-party evaluations CYI has undertaken,” says Claire Buddenberg, CYI’s Assistant Vice President of Program Evaluation. “We’ve had to learn how to balance the needs of a rigorous third-party evaluation with the needs of community-driven, community-owned work.”

To help strike that balance, evaluators and CYI strive to provide meaningful reports back to participating communities, notes Buddenberg: “It goes beyond just handing people a report and saying, ‘Here’s what your community said; take it and run.’ Instead, we sit with communities and think through how they might maximize the use of their data. It’s valuable for communities to see data specific to them and be able to reflect on it.”

Together, Nebraska Children and the evaluation team have also provided the collaboratives with webinars and other trainings on the collective-impact framework and with help in implementing CYI activities with that framework in mind. “We’re also researching the theoretical underpinnings of the initiative’s intervention model through a variety of research questions,” says Fronius. “How does emphasizing a shared agenda across multiple service providers, for instance, transfer to the implementation of this model and ultimately the outcomes for youth?”

What’s happened to Jesse?

Encouraged by his coaches, Jesse went on to community college and now works full-time as a mechanic. He and his partner, Desiree, credit the people they’ve met through CYI for helping them reach major milestones together, including parenting their two toddlers. “Jesse has really stepped up as a man because he’s had the opportunity to provide for his kids,” Desiree says. “Every little thing that he’s had help with is part of why we’re doing so well right now.”

The entire CYI effort promotes the power of collaboration to create a web of support for youth like Jesse. “Going a complete ‘180’ and having people who care and want me to succeed was tremendous,” Jesse says, “and then being able to fall back on them if I needed help.” His biggest lesson? “Don’t be afraid to accept help.”

1 The Connected Youth Initiative is a 2015 Social Innovation Fund (SIF) project funded in part by the Corporation for National and Community Service. The SIF was a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) that received funding from 2010 to 2016. Using public and private resources to find and grow community-based nonprofits with evidence of results, SIF intermediaries received funding to award subgrants that focus on overcoming challenges in economic opportunity, healthy futures, and youth development. Although CNCS made its last SIF intermediary awards in fiscal year 2016, SIF intermediaries will continue to administer their subgrant programs until their federal funding is exhausted.